Learn how to navigate the anxiety that inevitably arises when others are unhappy with us.
MAD ANXIETY I’m a little bit of an obsessive person, ok ok a lot obsessive. What’s great about this is my mind works in a series of charts and lists and I am constantly calculating how to make things more efficient. How do I run my business more effectively? How do I implement a better eating program for my client who is suffering from health issues? How can I maximize the time I spend with my dad so he feels the most taken care of and I feel the most connected to him?
Where this whole organizational system can backfire is when my mind gets stuck in a negative loop. As I have mentioned I struggled a lot when I was younger and spent massive amounts of time working through different negative thought patterns. But of all the things I have evolved and all the things that can potentially trigger me, the one that has been and is the hardest for me is people being mad at me. Oh man I can be living a perfectly peaceful content existence and then I find out someone is not happy with what kind of relative I am being or what kind of job I have done and I can be thrown back into that anxious child who just wants everyone to love her.
And as vulnerable as this is for me to share (I am supposed to be invincible because I am a therapist you know) it feels like it may be the most important thing for me to talk about. First because I can have true empathy for anyone who has difficulty with this and second because I have put a lot of time into figuring out how to solve this. I feel like the best way for me to explain the things that have helped is to use an example from my life:
when I was falling in love with my boyfriend it was the first time I fell in love and I felt swept up in a hurricane of lust and love and a huge desire to be with him, talk about him and dream about him. And this momentous event came after a decade of pretty much being single where I was available and depending on my friends for all the support you might receive from your significant other- I talked to my friends every day, I hung out with them all the time. And I was present to them for emotional support. And all the mean while saying things like I am never going to be like those people who fall in love and disappear off the face of the planet. That is so "codependent" and awful. You stick with your people and you don't abandon them just because some guy comes into your life. Well guess what... I did exactly that. Mark came along and it was like being on drugs, I never felt a pull so powerful, and because having a partner was something that I had wanted for so long and so afraid that I was not going to get, when I found it, all I wanted was to enjoy the ride. Well meanwhile this is hard for my friends. And so they are now coming to me and saying, “where are you? We miss you. You are being everything you said you would never be. It feels like we don't even know you anymore.” As they are giving me this input I can feel a huge anxiety bubble growing in my stomach. On the outside I tend to look stoic and not let on how little and insecure I feel, but on the inside I am freaking out. Adrenaline is shooting through me. My nervous system is sending signals to my body that we are in imminent danger, RETREAT, RETREAT, RETREAT!
The logical part of me is saying breathe, this is not a big deal. They are merely voicing their upsetness at you. Just tell them you love them and make more time for them, problem solved.
But another part of me knows I am screwed, because often times when something like this happens I can be stuck in an anxiety loop for days or in bad times weeks depending on how ongoing the external situation is.
So what have I learned to do when I am in a situation like this one:
First things first take out my journal, the therapist I had when I was teenager would always tell me I cannot help you relieve your anxiety unless you tell me what the thoughts and beliefs that are connected to it.
When my anxiety got triggered by the situation with my friends I could tell you I do not like when people are upset with me, they were upset with me, now I have a knot in my stomach. But this is not a deep enough understanding of my anxiety in this moment for me to actually release any of it. What I need to start writing about is the root fear I am having. So I start writing as if I am the anxiety talking, “you better be careful, Jesse you are in danger of losing all your friends, you really messed up big time, and are a crappy friend. You are being everything you said you wouldn’t, nobody likes people like that. You know from your younger years when you did not have any friends that it is pretty miserable to be alone and sad. We don’t know if Mark is going to be here forever so DO NOT mess this up for you and them. Don’t be one of “those females” that doesn’t value herself and her girls.”
My anxiety would then flip to, “I am so mad at them, they know how long I have waited for this and how I am not one of “those females”. They know who I am, and if they think they do not know me, maybe we can’t be friends anymore. Maybe we have grown apart and I just need to move on.”
What my anxiety has just illustrated is that there are 2 places our mind goes to when we are anxious: judgements/fears/anger directed at ourselves and judgements/fears/anger directed at others. So now that I am in touch with my deeper fears I am ready for step 2…
Step 2, acknowledge and feel the feeling When we write this stuff out and start to feel the deeper fear connected to our anxiety, our instinct is to jump to making it better. But like I told you in the beginning, I and most people already know the end point we are trying to get to (that this is not an actual emergency and everything is ok). But in order to release the anxiety we have to accept that the fear is there. A great teacher once told me, “what we resist will persist and what we accept will transform.” In other words, the more we deny the anxiety is there the longer it lasts, and the sooner we acknowledge the fear some of it releases.
So once I see the thoughts that are making me anxious, I take a deep breathe and give myself a big hug. And I say to myself Jesse, “it is ok that you are scared. You’ve been triggered but it will be ok.”
I often in this moment like to take a walk, go to yoga , meditate, get a massage, doing something for myself that is both loving to me that also moves the energy in my body.
And as I have acceptance for the fact that I am scared, some of that fear leaves me, so I am ready for step 3. Step 3: is there anything that I can do to be better?
Sometimes the answer is no, someone is angry with us and it’s just about realizing that their anger is not about us and we just need to repeat steps 1 and 2 with lots of self-care. On the other hand, often especially if our loved ones are upset, there is a call to action that we can choose in order to be better. You notice this is not until step 3: if I don’t stop and have understanding and empathy for myself first I am likely to screw this step up. Either by getting angry at the person who is angry at me or by doing what I often had a tendency to do which was over apologize from the wrong internal place, “I’m sorry I’m sorry. I was a horrible friend. What can I do to make this right?! I’ll do anything!” The message I’m giving is please don’t give me anymore feedback I’m not strong enough to hear it. Let’s just move on and sweep this under the rug.
I’m sorry can be very powerful but only from a place of strength and looking to truly rectify the situation. It might sound like, “I’m sorry I have been distracted. I value our friendship and want to us to be close. Can we make a regular plan to hang out and put it on the calendar?” I’m trying to give the message: I hear you and understand why you’re upset and I truly would like to make it better. What did I do in the situation with my friends? I’d like to tell you I did it just like I demonstrated above but I did not. Common, I told you at the beginning of this speech that people being mad at me was the my toughest anxiety loop. And this situation was 8 years ago and it took some time for me to work through it with them. I was integrating Mark and his giant Lebanese family into my life.
So…. sometimes I hid from my friends especially when I was worried they were particularly upset with me. Sometimes I over apologized from the wrong place. Sometimes I got mad at them for not understanding my perspective. AND In some conversations I got it just right communicating exactly what I felt from a strong place and owning my part in creating distance between us.
In the end, I was close enough for me and for them. Life’s a growing process and none of us are perfect. And the closer we are, the more opportunity we have to trigger each other’s anxieties.
The thought that helps me the most through is whole loop is, “I have good intentions, and I am striving to be the best communicator I can be, and the people who see that are my people. “